Level Up Your Association’s Email Marketing with Marketing Automation

Communications Strategy // Research affirms email marketing as one of the most effective channels for driving association business outcomes. Can you take it even further?

Vivian Swertinski
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Why After All This Time Does Email Still Work So Well?

The benefits of email from the association marketer’s perspective are fairly obvious. Few things beat email marketing in terms of cost-effectiveness, targeting, and measurability. Compare email to legacy ways organizations tried/try to maintain communication with members, like direct mail, trade magazine advertising, and telemarketing. If those sound like labor-intensive, expensive lifts, it’s because they are. Email marketing is about spending your resources in the smartest ways available to serve the most members possible, as meaningfully as possible.

Of course, that wouldn’t be the case if members hated email, didn’t want to get email, or didn’t use email. But as much as people like to complain about the volume of their inboxes, people still love and use email. It’s just too convenient and flexible (users can easily adjust the settings, flagging, tagging, and categorizing of emails in their email clients of choice) to not embrace. This is especially true for association communication to members.

Association members are business connections. Their relationship to the association is a professional one. Even if some may prefer text, chat apps, or video conversation apps to interact with personal friends, they still regard email as essential for business. And they check it all day long. It’s a constant stream in their day. And they feel business messaging there is not out of place or inappropriate.

Email Can Power the Entire Member Journey

Marketing General Inc.’s data in the 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report also shows email (along with word-of-mouth) ranks as the most effective channel for new member acquisition. Which makes sense.

Prospects in the recruiting stage are probably going to be subscribing for something like your blog, podcast, or newsletter. Maybe they wanted to get a gated eBook or video series. They don’t have to be a paid member to do any of that, but that’s where the recruitment campaign begins. Because it’s low contact and they can opt out at any time, it’s an easy way for them to start learning about the organization.

Then they join. If we’re following the typical member journey, they’ll go through some sort of onboarding process. Whether it’s one welcome message or a series of instructional onboarding messages on how to get the most out of their membership, email is the communication channel of choice for members to get fully up and running.

From that point forward, it becomes a business relationship, because they’re paying money to be a part of the association, right? At that point email is the vehicle that delivers the marketed benefits. Ideally, members will be actively looking for and wanting these emails because nobody wants to feel like they’ve wasted money. They will be proactively looking to extract value out of the membership. You’re reaching out with relevant information and engaging these members throughout the year.

If you do that, you’ve set the stage for success with the last aspect of the member journey, retention and renewal. Again, email proves itself as the most effective channel for alerting members that a renewal period is coming up, reminding them of why they should renew, and giving them instructions and links for easily renewing.

Great! But can we make that email channel even more effective?

While that’s a good question, a better question might be “What’s going on with our email channel that might be limiting engagement or keeping us from growing engagement?” Once you spot the problem areas, they can begin to be addressed with some marketing automation-driven best practices.

Stop the Blog Post! What Exactly is Marketing Automation, and Do I Really Need It?

Here’s a question for you. Do you sometimes feel like when it comes to your email campaigns, you’re just “winging it”? Or worse, are your emails not organized into strategic campaigns at all? Are you just sending out mass emails when it feels like you should? Are you far away from having the ideal path for member communication we outlined above?

If so, you’d feel a whole lot better if your email marketing were following a strategic construct of who should get what email, and when. Past a certain number of members, executing that effectively isn’t scalable. Marketing automation is about scalability and having a pre-programmed auto-guide that makes sure messaging is appropriate, targeted, and runs like clockwork.

With marketing automation, the risk of well-meaning individual team members putting out messages without insight into what other messages are being put out by other team members goes way down. It puts a system in place that essentially automatically does air traffic control to make sure emails go out, are timed appropriately, and go out to the right members.

Let’s say you’re writing and loading up one-off messages. You might think that workstream you’ve set up to send it out as scheduled is automation. It is, but it’s the very least that automation can do. With true marketing automation, you’re thinking through the next three steps that should happen after an email is sent, based on who the recipient is and what they do with the email. Then you’re setting up all those possibilities and actions (once) in an automated workflow.

You might be ready for marketing automation if:

  • You’re unable to personalize experiences.
  • Your members are looking for more than they’re getting.
  • Email engagement is going down.
  • Your small team is stressed and frustrated, unable to wear multiple hats.
  • Your email marketing is frighteningly too dependent on one person.
  • The Great Resignation has your team in almost constant flux and the continuity of evergreen marketing automation campaigns isn’t there to compensate for the turnover.

Roadblocks to Engagement That Marketing Automation Helps Tear Down

Roadblock: Sending too many messages that members don’t find useful or relevant.

Just the words “email blast” send a shiver down the backs of savvy modern marketers. Yes, you can send one email to everyone, but that doesn’t mean you should. Usually, an email blast is the result of a near-desperation need on the marketer’s side irrespective of what the recipients want or need. And guess what. The recipient gets to decide whether an email is relevant or not. If you repeatedly send messages that don’t apply, even if you think they do, you’re teaching your email base that all future emails from you won’t matter to them. You’re literally generating disengagement.

Best Practice: Adopt a member-centric framework that gives your audience more control.

An email send is an expenditure of time and effort for both the producer and the reader. Lost time can’t be reclaimed. A bad impression is immediate to take hold but takes months to reverse or overcome. You want all your communications to be worth everyone’s time and effort. If you obsess over your members…what they want, when they want it, and how they want it…little is wasted.

  • Watch the data in your marketing automation platform to see what works and what doesn’t.
  • Let members self-select what kind of communication they want to get.
  • Offer the option to mute remaining messages in a series. For instance, if they aren’t interested in your upcoming webinar, let them tell you to stop sending them emails about that one. This is simple with marketing automation, makes the member feel heard, empowers the member, and keeps communications relevant for each.

You want them to feel “Everything I get from them is worthwhile, so I open every email.”

Roadblock: Not tailoring the message content to distinct member segments.

What’s better: Sending a message with dynamic content that recognizes and delivers customized content to specific members. For example, when promoting an annual conference you may want different content for first time attendees, loyal attendees, and lapsed conference attendees.

Best Practice: Use marketing automation tools to Send, Listen, Respond.

Marketing automation’s greatest superpower has to be targeting. But targeting and segmenting isn’t a “set it and forget it” affair. Those segments are always shifting based on what’s learned about the email recipient. Data fuels marketing automation. The ideal state is to have your member database integrated with your Higher Logic marketing automation platform. The database is the source for member data and Higher Logic is the source for digital behavior data, and this synergy together enables you to harness the power of data to deliver personalized messages at scale.

The marketing automation toolbox includes landing pages, web tracking, automated flows, segmentation capabilities and engagement scoring, which are then married with integrated data from online communities and your database. Using technology to send, listen, and respond allows for a more one-to-one communication style.

Tactical Ways Marketing Automation Can Level Up Your Email

Looking for real benefits before you put in the work of leveling up? See these real examples for how you can improve your processes with marketing automation:

  • Sending a welcome series of emails vs. one welcome email to generate increased engagement in new members.
  • Delivering different renewal messaging and tone to engaged and unengaged members vs. sending an irrelevant “time to renew” message to everyone.
  • Sending webinar invites to those who haven’t registered vs. sending invites to registered and un-registered alike.
  • Inviting members you know are interested in an event to attend vs. inviting everyone every single time you send an email about it. Tip: Generally, members that repeatedly browse annual conference pages and click on the registration information are the most likely ones to convert.

These examples are all about observing behaviors that lead to a decision and then utilizing the information to nurture members in the decision-making process.

Email is Fine, but Marketing Automation is Great

Sometimes, people hear the word “automation” and think that it means a step toward being more distant and impersonal. As you can tell from the advantages outlined above, exactly the opposite is true. Association marketing teams are only human. And while they’re doing the best they can to push email messages out to the membership, it’s impossible for them to know each member’s status and needs at all times and manually create segments, writing custom copy for each. Marketing automation allows for more relevant, more personalized, and thus more engaging email marketing at scale.

Vivian Swertinski

Senior Manager of Strategic Services

Vivian Swertinski, Senior Manager of Strategic Services at Higher Logic, has over 25 years’ experience helping customers leverage technology and strategy to achieve outstanding results. She is known for helping organizations turn engagement challenges into engagement success stories. During her 7 years at Higher Logic, Vivian has delighted in helping customers achieve operational efficiencies and increase annual revenues.

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